BMCR 1993.01.07

1993.01.07, duBois, Torture and Truth

, Torture and truth. New ancient world series. London: Routledge, 1991. viii, 162 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 9780415902120. Pp. 162.

“Torture is senseless violence, born in fear.” “The purpose of torture is not only the extortion of confessions, of betrayal: the victim must disgrace himself, by his screams and his submissions, like a human animal.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

How can one even contemplate writing a scholarly book on such a horrifying and intensely discomfiting subject? How can one even pretend to maintain the requisite emotional distance? How does one proceed with such a project? Very carefully and with humbleness of purpose, according to Page duBois. She has obviously given a great deal of thought to the genesis, the unfolding, and the impact of her work on torture and truth, and she discusses these matters in introductory and concluding statements of purpose: “I feel intensely the danger and impertinence of not taking it seriously enough, of speaking about it from the safety of academic America … I do not want to trivialize it as a literary topos” (5-6). “I have had to resist lyricizing the tortured body … I have resisted the perverse pleasures associated with sado-masochism and torture … I have not wanted to sensationalize and exoticize and create desire for torture, to make this text any sort of celebration of torture, a philosophical lure, an antique” (141). She wants, rather, “to look for the origin of truth, the origin of torture” and, by examining the use of torture in Greek society, “to prove that our civilization is based on barbarism” (142-43).

A large order, particularly in 162 pages. The book ranges widely: it is a philological inquiry into the meaning of the Greek word for torture, basanos, and its implications in various Greek authors and in legal language; a consideration of the relationship between torture and truth and a study of the word-cluster alêtheia/lêthê in Homer, the pre-Socratics, Plato, and Heidegger; an examination of the gender implications of the issues of torture and truth; a call for readers to understand that the claim that the “civilized” Western countries are free of torture is Eurocentric, misleading, and ingenuous. Torture still exists—any sceptics need only to look at the horrifying reports from Amnesty International—and countries like the United States and France have dirty hands simply by dint of being members of a “global economy of punishment and discipline” in which no person or country is isolated from another.

Let me backtrack for a more detailed look at how duBois develops her thesis and consider some of the many implications of her book. DuBois wishes mainly to elucidate the relationship between torture and truth from Greek society up to the present day and to show that our view of the truth as unitary, residing “always somewhere else and out of reach” (Sartre), and therefore best extractable by torture proves a link to Greek practice that we would rather disavow. Her study of torture starts with an investigation of the Greek word basanos, first and most literally “touchstone,” but then extended to the metaphorical meaning, “a test to determine whether someone or something is genuine.” In Chapter 2, duBois examines the use of basanos in Greek authors from Theognis to Sophocles, Herodotus, and Aristophanes. All use the word to refer to some sort of a testing or interrogation, but duBois stresses that violence or physical intimidation is always present in the passages. This combination of violence and interrogation suggests that physical torture was a fact of daily life both in the democracy of ancient Greece and in the relations between Greece and other countries.

There is a particular connection made between torture and slaves. Indeed, physical punishment and torture were institutionalized with slavery (and thus become almost numbingly routine and commonplace in this context). The precise reasons why torture seems to be practiced almost exclusively on slaves (citizens could not be tortured but duBois later discusses the instability of slave versus free status) and non-Greeks, and accordingly, why slaves’ testimony was only good if obtained under torture, are multiple and unclear (to duBois, perhaps; certainly to me). From the very first uses of the term, torture is often thought to reside in “the other.” In Chapter 3, where duBois looks at basanos in its legal context, the connection between the truth, torture, and slaves is made clear. The slave is like a bit of metal, a thing to be tested by the touchstone or torture. Slaves are assumed to lie (as opposed to free, noble men) and therefore cannot speak the truth unless they are put to torture. Unlike aristocrats, slaves do not have the fortitude to maintain a silence under torture and can therefore be expected to produce the truth under duress. Furthermore, Aristotle claims that, whereas the master of the slave possesses reason and so can choose to tell or to conceal the truth, the slave, who can apprehend but not possess reason, must tell the truth under coercion. Demosthenes regards evidence under torture as the only reliable means of producing truth, and he even claims that, whereas free witnesses sometimes give untrue evidence, no statement made under torture has ever proven to be untrue. DuBois describes evidence produced under torture as temporally estranged, institutionally, conventionally marked “evidence of another order” and indeed as belonging to a higher order than truth freely offered (49).

However, Antiphon points out the pitfalls of an argument like Demosthenes’. Slaves will change their testimony, he says, to gratify their torturers and to try to save themselves. There might be more than one “truth” at issue, according to Antiphon; duBois classifies these truths as essentialist and pragmatic, that is, the “truth” of a statement and the “truth” of the power relationship and context in which the truth is told. Slaves can be bribed by promises of freedom, for example, to say what the torturers wish to hear.

Thus ancient opinion about the usefulness and credibility of freely-produced versus coerced evidence varied widely. Constant, however, is the idea that “torturability” (a rather horrifying neologism) demarcates a clear boundary between slave and free (Greeks—free foreigners are equal in their status to slaves in this context). Always present too is the idea that the truth within slaves is buried, inaccessible, elsewhere, veiled, hidden. The slave is a sign, concealer of the truth that must be elicited with violence. The terms used to describe the associations of slaves with hidden truth are closely allied to the images of interiority linked to women. Like slaves, women’s bodies were signs, “metaphorically inscribed by their masters” (90), veiled, full of potential truth. DuBois’ discussion of the similarities between slaves and women as sites of hidden meanings leads her into an extended examination of the word alêtheia in Homer, the pre-Socratics (Heraclitus and Parmenides), Plato, and Heidegger. Two main paradigms of alêtheia exist: the more archaic view of truth as something hidden, buried, and recalled through interrogation, an act of memory, divine aid, or violence and the view espoused by Heraclitus that sees truth as process, dialectic, and marked by temporal difference. Plato appears to present both paradigms in his dialogues, but duBois posits, in one of her most central and important theses, that the apparent intellectual interchange in the dialogues, in which truth appears to be produced through elenchus and thus to be a democratic process, may simply be “the mask of debate” (112), an appropriation of democratic practices that are assimilated only to be discredited. DuBois here compares the process of cross-examination (elenchus) and philosophy itself to torture in its use of interrogation accompanied by violence. The truth is located in the mind of the philosopher and can only be discovered by coercion and labor. This kind of truth, originally the truth of the religious tradition that was later secularized, defines the oligarchy and aristocracy that ultimately held sway in the polis. The Heraclitean model of a temporal, historical truth produced in time and space and accessible to many, is rarely seen in the Athenian city; indeed, duBois claims that “the ancient democracy must be mapped as an absence” (123). We see the workings of the democratic polis only through the presentation of them by authors hostile to the democracy. The truth that belongs to democracy is a process that resists representation.

A pivotal figure in twentieth-century philosophical thought brings together many of the ideas presented in this book: Martin Heidegger. In a chapter on Plato and Heidegger, duBois discusses the relationship between their views of truth and explores Heidegger’s connection of alêtheia to the verb lanthanomai, “I forget.” Heidegger, in his well-known essay “Aletheia,” defines alêtheia as un-concealment, un-covering, drawing something out from secrecy and darkness. DuBois says that Heidegger perpetuates the Platonic view of a religious, not a dialogical truth, a truth that is hidden and must be forced out through violence (Heidegger himself, however, associates his views with Heraclitus, not with Plato). For Plato and Heidegger, the essence of truth lies in the correctness of the gaze and does not reside in the beings themselves. Correctness of representation becomes the paradigm for truth in Western philosophy. DuBois connects Heidegger’s fascination with the secrecy and violence of truth to his hostility to democracy and indeed to the Nazism that informed his life and work.

DuBois’ final two chapters are attempts to connect torture, truth, and democracy to the present and to our responsibility for our actions in the light of the historical view of democracy presented here. In Chapter 13, “Criticism/Self-Criticism,” duBois locates herself as a thinker engaged with deconstruction, Heidegger’s pivotal role in the development of deconstruction, and the impossibility of truly distinguishing between the two logics of mysticism (hiddenness, secrecy) and democracy (dialogue, discovery). Yet she is also made uncomfortable by the involvement of Heidegger’s philosophical thought with his politics, and she is very aware that there must be “an essentialist moment” in which “politics and ethics punctuate the infinite flux.” She calls us (and herself) to “recognize our implication in the play of torture and truth” and to end our complicity with torture (144).

DuBois seeks in the last chapter to define what truth and torture might mean for contemporary society and to discover why the female body has been and still is represented as the locus of truth. Torture, like other social and political actions, changes its meaning over time. DuBois claims that torture today is used not to elicit information but to punish and to make an example of its victims. She distinguishes between political torture (control of and domination over an unpalatable truth) and sexual abuse or torture of women and children by men, an attempt to possess and control a truth located elsewhere. It is the latter kind of torture that she links to the paradigm of torture and truth she has attempted to define in antiquity.

The division that duBois sets up between different kinds of torture does not seem to me really to exist. Torture always has the elements of control and dominance and always seeks to create an “other,” a victim who is constructed as the locus of the “truth” sought and who must be destroyed or used as an example, a display. The Amnesty International definition of torture, while necessarily somewhat reductive, is a useful starting point: “Torture is used to gain information, to obtain a confession, to punish, to intimidate, and to terrorize. Whatever its immediate purpose, torture degrades the victims and at the same time it dehumanizes the torturer” ( AI Handbook, December, 1991, p. 32). Another useful point made elsewhere in the Amnesty International definition that is absolutely essential for a historical understanding and a social and intellectual erasure of torture, is that torture is not special or unique; it is an everyday occurrence, common, and systematic, and it happens in many countries (including the United States) regardless of political ideologies and economic systems. It is institutionalized, forming an integral part of a government security strategy and justice system. It is routine.

Obviously I found this a fascinating book on an important topic. I have just a few quibbles. The audience at which duBois is aiming was not clear to me. Her book is in places quite technical in its close examination of texts and its use of Greek and untranslated French, but elsewhere much more accessible and quite broad in its appeal to a general reader. One might have thought, for example, that such a book would have used the much more useful social science reference system and not the old, more arcane op. cit.’s. The plan of the book seems unbalanced, with some chapters relatively long and other, important ones (“The Law,” “Democracy”) only a few pages. The coverage of the book is so sweeping that the leaps of thought, time, and subject matter are sometimes breathtaking and hard to follow, and much that is said in rather compressed form deserves to be unpacked (although at times the book repeats things too often). Those who are familiar with her last book, Sowing the Body, will find some of the material there repeated here but used in a different context.

It is inevitable that one will quibble with some of duBois’ claims and methods given the enormity of the task she has set herself. But above all, she should be congratulated for tackling the topic at all, for ranging over such a wide variety of authors and issues in an authoritative but not controlling way, and, in particular, for not shying away from a consideration of the contemporary political implications of this ancient, long-institutionalized, and still-practiced ritual.